Today is R U OK? Day. The Australian mental health initiative, which began in 2009, urges people to ask each other if they’re doing OK. Not OK in the throw-away use of the word, but genuinely coping. The message encourages people to talk to each other, ask questions and listen.
A lot of the communication surrounding R U OK? Day is related to depression, suicide prevention and coping with challenging life circumstances.
But why wait until things get that bad? For me the power of the today’s message is in encouraging people to be more connected at other times as well.
As a cyclist I watch time and time again as friends struggle with their mental health in response to a physical injury. As you take time out from the sport you love, your social circle narrows. Your daily routine loses some of its structure, its social outlets, its high points.
Unable to exercise, your appetite changes, you lose the fitness you value so highly and your sense of identity or body image can take a hit. You lose the activity that helps you sort through the week’s challenges; a mindful practice that helps you cope with other worries, concerns or stress.
While most cyclists come up with a plan for restoring physical health, I think the hardest thing for many riders is the way their social relationships with other cyclists quickly appear shallower than they thought. This might not be the case but people get busy. When you're missing from the bunch the routines that keep you in contact disappear with you.
Our friendships with each other are based around time outdoors doing something. Many cyclists don’t tend to work as hard to cultivate these relationships so they remain strong away from the bike. When someone’s missing for a while we just assume we’ll see them when they’re ready. Meanwhile, they might not be coping as well as you think.
I write this on the other side of a winter healing some broken teeth. It’s not the first time I’ve had an extended period off the bike and it won’t be the last. On the days where I’ve felt frustrated, thoughtful gestures from friends have made the world of difference: catching up for a coffee, an invite to a social function on feet rather than wheels, a message on Instagram sharing the joy of those first rides back.
Some people struggle to know what to say in these situations. We’re increasingly impervious to whinging and prefer positive ‘up’ talk to discussions on the hard stuff.
Sometimes the simplest responses are the best. One colleague gently wrote over email that they were sad this thing had happened and that it was dragging on the way it was. He didn’t dramatise, underplay or try to miraculously solve the injury which I appreciated. But in acknowledging that it takes a toll, it helped me to do the same. Others joined me in laughing at the funny side of the situation (need any good pirate jokes?), while another friend sent me thoughtful images of trails and dirt, which he was enjoying on my behalf.
If someone’s withdrawn from your circle, or you notice a change in someone's behaviour, take a moment to chat or send them a message. Ask them how they’re going, tell them they’re missed and listen when they speak. It might not seem like a big deal at your end but I guarantee you that you will appreciate it when the roles are reversed.
If you’re the one that’s struggling take steps to reverse the impacts of the social blow as well. Be proactive in contacting your friends for a chat or see if you can make it to that post ride coffee spot. Take time to engage in different hobbies for a while. See people you don’t tend to catch up with as often when you’re riding every weekend.
As you get back to fitness enjoy the chance to ride at a different pace. Soak up that feeling of leaning through a corner or flying through the wind.
Injuries and sickness happen to all of us. It’s part of being human. As is caring for the people around you. So do yourself and others a favour. Ask someone if they’re OK today and on other days too.
And, even if it doesn’t come naturally, take the time to have an honest conversation in response. It may have a much bigger impact than you think.
For Australians in need of support or someone to talk to, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If life is in danger call 000.